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Local Party Membership Maintenance: Financial Incentives?

June 10, 2010

One of the things I’ve bemoaned frequently on this blog is the not inconsiderable number of Liberal Democrat members who join the party and never hear from them again. I know local parties who don’t send out member communications for years at a time, with the occasional exception of uninviting and intimidating AGM calling notices. New members are not engaged or involved in the organisation of the local party and its campaigns. Their potential talents are not explored, except as Focus deliverers. They do not get to meet other Liberal Democrats, to discuss our shared principles and values.

I’m not being holier-than-though here. I know there’s a lot of confusion in the party about this stuff. Whose job is chasing up lapsed members? I’ve heard that Cowley Street do it. I’ve heard that it’s the local party’s job. I’ve heard that it’s up to the regional, national or state party. I honestly don’t know, and I’ve been a Membership Development Officer myself. Whose job is it within a local party? The Membership Development Officer? The Data Officer? The Secretary? What about if you’ve got branches – do they do it, or does the local party? The proposal I’m about to outline will help deal with this as well.

As it stands, some percentage (I think it’s about 10%) of a Liberal Democrat’s party membership fees go directly to their local party, with no questions asked. I propose that this should be reduced to 5%, with an additional 5% as a conditional grant. To earn this latter 5%, the local party must agree to provide a certain level of service to its members. A basic agreement of this type would include, say, contacting new members within 3 months to welcome them to the local party, inviting members to the AGM, and inviting lapsing members to renew.

Each year, the new local party exec should decide whether it has the resources to deliver these services. They could be provided with sample letters for all of the above, along with suggestions for which officer should undertake each task. This makes participating in providing services to membership a conscious decision for the local party, and could perhaps become part of the process when the new exec is reported to Membership Services at Cowley Street. The local party may wish to delegate some parts of this work to its branches, or it may choose not to.

If they’re not going to do this, then some other body needs to. In the interest of keeping these things as low as possible, I suggest that the Regional Party should get next dibs, and so on back up to Cowley Street. Whoever does it gets the other 5% of the member’s fees. But whoever does it, it’ll be a conscious decision and hopefully everybody will know who’s responsible for this. That’s why I didn’t mention members’ newsletters in the agreement – because it’d be hard for a regional, state or federal body to provide members with meaningful local content.

If there’s need for oversight, that 5% funding going to other bodies should permit them to do some random checks of new and recently-lapsed members. I would hope Cowley Street do this anyway, but suspect they don’t have the budget. Phoning up somebody who joined six months ago and asking them their experience of the party so far would give us valuable information, as would phoning up lapsed members and asking whether they were invited to renew.

What I’m really trying to solve here is encouraging a clear responsibility for providing service to our members, and a financial incentive for doing so. Perhaps this could all be sorted by centralising it in Cowley Street and giving more budget to Member Services, but I don’t think that’s the right solution – it’s one-size-fits-all and doesn’t provide much of an incentive to local parties to do what they should be doing but often aren’t. I’d welcome people’s opinions as to other ways to solve this problem – possibly by increasing the proportion of membership subs which go to local parties to 15% or even 20%, though that would significantly impact central party financing.

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